Schools see fast turnover of chiefs

NASHUA – Over more than three decades, the leadership of the city’s school system changed hands once.

After 22 years at the helm of the district, Berard Masse retired in 1995 and was replaced by Joseph Giuliano, who stayed in the position until he retired 10 years later.

With Superintendent Christopher Hottel now in the process of hunting for a new job so he can finish his career in Massachusetts, the district could soon be looking for its third superintendent since 2005.

The trend of rapid turnover among superintendents isn’t exclusive to Nashua, said Mark Joyce, executive director of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association.

The average tenure for school chiefs has been on the decline, and it’s becoming more rare for superintendents to stay in one district for a decade or more, he said.

“What we’re seeing now is probably a statewide average of five years or less,” he said.

Hottel is one of four finalists for the superintendent position in North Andover, Mass. The town’s school committee is expected to make its decision at a meeting tonight.

Ted Comstock, executive director of the New Hampshire School Boards Association, said it was common not too long ago to see superintendents make long-term commitments to districts.

Things have changed, Comstock said, primarily because there are fewer candidates for superintendent positions and the job itself has become more complicated, with more state and federal regulations.

“It’s definitely a seller’s market,” he said. “The negotiation position is not as strong for school boards as it was in the past.”

Comstock’s organization works with many school boards in New Hampshire on superintendent searches.

It recently worked with the Manchester Board of Education to fill its superintendent position.Comstock said school boards are usually looking for someone willing to commit five to eight years, but said he tells boards that likely isn’t a realistic expectation in today’s market.

Hottel said he told the Nashua Board of Education before he was hired that he planned to work in Nashua for three to six years and then return to Massachusetts.

Hottel, 62, worked for nine years in Haverhill, Mass., before coming to Nashua. He said part of his reason for going back to Massachusetts is to have enough years to be vested in the state’s retirement system.

So, is there anything the Nashua school board can do to guarantee that the next superintendent, whoever that person is, won’t be on his or her way out within a few years?

Like with any job, money and benefits are factors, but there are no guarantees that a higher salary and more perks will do the trick.

Hottel is making $150,000, which was the highest superintendent salary in the state before Manchester hired its new superintendent at $155,000. The North Andover, Mass., job he’s seeking is offering a salary range of $160,000 to $180,000.

Even though overall compensation is generally better in Massachusetts, turnover is high there, as well, said Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.

“Keeping superintendents decades at a time is a long-lost thought right now,” he said, adding that the average stay for a superintendent in Massachusetts is also around five years.

Scott said it isn’t all about money. Superintendents are also looking for communities that support education and school boards willing to work effectively with them, he said.

“It’s a very complex job right now, and if they don’t feel they have the right conditions around them, it makes it difficult,” Scott said.

Comstock said more New Hampshire school boards are offering benefits such as payments toward annuities, vehicles for personal use and professional development opportunities as part of compensation packages.

School boards are also signing superintendents to longer-term contracts, usually for three years, he said. But if a superintendent wants to leave in the middle of a contract, there is nothing a school board can do to stop it, he said.

“The bottom line is you cannot force an employee to stay if they don’t want to stay,” Comstock said.

Hottel’s contract runs until June 2010, but it contains a clause that allows for the school board and Hottel to mutually terminate the deal.

If Hottel voluntarily resigns, he must give the board 60 days’ notice and loses his severance benefits, according to his contract.

The Nashua school board hired Julia Earl in the summer of 2005 to replace Giuliano, but her departure a year and a half later wasn’t planned.

She was placed on paid administrative leave in the summer of 2006 while the school board, police and state education officials investigated her spending. The school board eventually bought Earl out of her contract in February 2007.

But even before the investigations began, Earl’s name popped up as a superintendent finalist in the Tulsa, Okla. school district 10 months after she was hired.

Earl withdrew her name from the Tulsa job after being placed on leave.

Hottel, hired as an assistant superintendent in 2005, was named acting superintendent when Earl was placed on leave. He was officially given the job in February 2007.

There are still exceptions to the rule, such as Marge Chiafery, who is in her eighth year as superintendent in Merrimack.

Chiafery said one of the reasons she stayed in Merrimack is because she was given the opportunity to grow professionally.

She moved up the administrative ranks before being named superintendent in 2001, working as a principal and assistant superintendent before being given the top position.

She also said the supportive community made her want to stay.

Joyce said there have been studies that have shown keeping a superintendent in place for a long tenure can have positive impact on student performance.

“The research tells us that it’s very important to have the right match and a long-term commitment,” he said.